Sunday, December 16, 2018

Diego's Story

We at RISE first met Diego when he was a junior.  He is yet another student who inspires us.  He will be graduating from Anacostia High in 2019.  Whenever I am having a bit of a bad day, I think about students like Diego and keep forging on.  Here is his story.  

"I live in Anacostia in Southeast Washington, D.C.  Growing up in Southeast has its challenges.  In my neighborhood there are homeless people and trash everywhere.  I also see a police presence every day.  Two years ago my close friend, Kevin, was shot to death a few blocks from my school and a few blocks from my house.  Last week another student from our school was killed.  When I was four, my sister, who was 21, had to become my parent.  It has been hard for my sister to manage her job and to take care of me.  We have struggled with bills, sometimes selling personal belongings just to keep the lights on.  

I have stayed away from gang banging neighborhoods and separated myself from others so I can start to focus more on school and sports. I was a captain of my football team for two years and I made first-team conference in 11th grade.  I was a part of the student government association my 11th grade year.  I have made the honor roll most quarters.
I am planning to attend North Carolina-Central University and to become a sports broadcaster.  I am thankful for RISE for the opportunity to go to college and be successful."


Back in 1983, I announced to the Edmund Burke School assembly that our #1 tennis player’s league tournament championship was “priceless.”  No amount of salary at an engineering or accounting firm could compensate for the satisfaction of working with a kid for three years and see him achieve great things.

Thirty-five years later, I had the same feeling last weekend when one of our MATHletes from 2010, Josh, graduated from North Carolina A&T.  Josh graduated from Anacostia High School in 2013.  He and I are not sure, but we think perhaps five of the 150 or so graduates of that class have finished college.

RISE has worked with over 500 Anacostia students since 2010.  Six of these students have lost their lives.  A few have graduated from college, but it is an uphill climb.  Anacostia students are not as well prepared for college as many of their peers.  A relatively small tuition bill can derail their plans.  Family distractions can necessitate their return home.

Josh learned how to be self-sufficient once he learned he was in the wrong college for him freshman year.  On his own, he transferred to North Carolina A&T, the highest rated public historically black college in the country.  One of only a handful of history majors at A&T, Josh is applying for an assignment with Teach for America.

Josh had his ups and downs while in college, but he persevered.  His role model and guiding light, his grandfather, died in early 2018. One of things I love most about RISE is we stay in touch with our alumni.  RISE will always be around for Josh, if only to ask, "How is it going?"  In Josh's case, it should be going just fine.

Friday, August 10, 2018

First Days of College

It is always a humbling experience to be the adult who drops off a child at college.  One of our students admitted two years ago that he kept looking out his dorm window for the first two weeks, like some sort of recovery from trauma at home, when he always needed to know who was coming for him. 

Two weeks ago, I wrote our soon-to-be fifteen college freshmen: 

“Tomorrow the first of you departs for school.  On reflecting on the last three years, I am especially grateful for you all.  You have, just in the past year, battled homelessness, the death of a parent, the sudden departure of your principal, and God knows what else.  You have gotten jobs, badgered teachers and counselors, confided in me or your mentors, and just plain persevered.  You have excelled in school and in sports.

And you are not done with us.  One reason our students complete college at a rate five times the national average is we and you stay in touch.  Expect frequent texts and calls from me to see how you are doing.  I am also planning on seeing all of you on campus in a meeting with either your favorite professor or your advisor.  Here is the schedule: 

Sept 24-28--Ohio and West Virginia
Oct 2-4--Norfolk

Oct 9-12--Petersburg, North and South Carolina

I'll come back to you all with specific dates of my visiting as the days approach.  Those of you who are inside the Beltway--we don't need to plan ahead quite as much.

This is the beginning of our next phase, where RISE can still be of help to you as you become more and more independent.  Then, before you know it, you will be helping me and others in all kinds of ways.


One last piece of advice for those of you going outside the Beltway to live in a strange new dorm somewhere:  You will be homesick.  You will miss the good and the bad.  Imagine missing the noise and the sirens and the chaos, but you will.  Do not try to come home for a visit until Thanksgiving at the earliest.  You will just get even more homesick when you return to school.  For those of you 5 or more hours away, I even suggest you find a friend to host you for Thanksgiving.

Don't forget the army of supporters at RISE who have your back.  Good luck in the beginning of this journey.

Much love,

Mr P”

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Delonte's Story

Delonte is a RISE senior who thanks to RISE's supporters is applying to colleges, visiting colleges, and will continue to receive support once he enrolls in college.  He is a gifted athlete and also a talented student.

"When I was younger our family got evicted every winter.  We didn’t always have the clothes to wear outside the house.  We even would wear the same clothes for school every day for two weeks.  Once we became homeless and were living in a motel for a month, without transportation to school.

My mother had me at a very early age, 16, and I’ve seen her struggle for a very long time now.  All I want is to help provide for her.  Unfortunately, I don’t know my father.  My mother has had boy friends who I saw were not a good example of a male figure for my life.  One time I had to sleep on the train for a week straight because one of step fathers and I got into an argument and he put me out while my mother was out of town and didn’t know. 

My only outlet for me outside of home is football, which is a big part of my life but it’s more than just that.  Football was always that outlet that that I could take my anger out in.  I started when I was seven years old.  I have had the same teammates and built a bond with them.  To me they are like my second family.  I am having a good season this year, with three interceptions, one for a touchdown that won a game for us.  When I’m on the field I think about why I still play, who I’m doing it for, always thinking about the struggle I see my mom and siblings go through and what they expect from me.  This weighs on me a lot so much that I cry almost every week about my situation and how I just want to become more than what I am now.

If I don’t make it in football, during my college years I want to study statistics or be involved in physical therapy.  In school, my favorite subject is math, but chemistry is very interesting to me because you learn so much about the science world and important things in your life.  In those two subjects I have gotten good scores and grades throughout middle school and high school.  Those two subjects are also involved throughout the world, so being proficient in those subjects will help me in other positive ways.

My mom and siblings have moved to be with my grandmother in North Carolina.  I currently live with my friend in SE Washington, DC, still in school, doing my best to receive a scholarship from any D1 school but any school possible.  I see better things in my future that no one seems to believe I can do.  I still want to provide the very best for my mom.  She dropped out in 10th grade while she was having me.  I don’t want to follow her path.  I just want to make life better for myself while helping my mother and the rest of my family."

Our Neighborhood High Schools in Transition

Thanks to the generosity of its supporters, RISE has been working with two high schools in the lowest income neighborhoods in the city, Anacostia Senior High School and Ballou Senior High School, since 2010.  In 2014, RISE and Anacostia High School ended their partnership, and this past August, RISE and Ballou High School did as well.   

Ballou’s principal was reassigned in late November after reports that the school was graduating students who did not meet minimum requirements and were absent for more than ninety days in a year.   

Our goal at RISE is to work with principals and schools to help their kids succeed – to pass and excel in their classes, to attend school consistently, and to reach beyond high school to college.  Despite all the chaos around them, more than forty Anacostia and Ballou students in RISE's College Prep Plus program have forged ahead to make college enrollment and completion a reality. 

High schools in Southeast Washington, DC, face many challenges.  It takes strong leadership plus support of the school system and numerous other partners to help students develop the skills and knowledge that will serve them into adulthood.  

However, passing students who attend less than half their classes and forcing teachers into ethical dilemmas that impact teachers' careers, as happened at Ballou, do not serve students well.  Working in such an environment is difficult for RISE.  Schools have pressures to produce better data such as better attendance, fewer suspensions, better scores, or more college matriculation.

It is not easy for school leadership and teachers to achieve positive results when more than 90% of the students live in single-parent households, most live in poverty and struggle to meet their basic needs, and they are surrounded by violence, drugs and other forms of abuse. 

Even in the most challenging of circumstances, we see and celebrate students’ success.  We hope to see Ballou and Anacostia High Schools overcome their challenges of leadership and staff retention, and with the support of community partners and supporters, persevere to meet their students’ needs.  These are environments where RISE can be of maximum service and value to their students.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

College Funding Reaches a Critical Stage in D.C.

It’s not a newsflash that college costs have spiraled out of control.  Many colleges expect students or parents to borrow huge amounts of money to finance their education.  For RISE’s low-income students, funding for college has been manageable recently but may reach a crisis state before long. 

Pell Grants are still worth less than $6,000 per year for RISE’s students.  Isolated scholarships are available, but they are usually just a few thousand dollars each and only available to students with high GPA’s or test scores.  About fifteen years ago the DC CollegeSuccess Foundation was launched to help students in Wards 7 and 8 pay for college.  The Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) had audited the population in Wards 7 and 8 and found that, on average, only 3% of each public school graduating class was finishing college.  Funded largely by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the “Double the Numbers” Initiative of the DC College Success Foundation has had the intention of doubling the number of students graduating from college.

The initiative has largely succeeded, although RISE believes the numbers could be much higher still.  I write more about this here.  The game changer for low-income students was the DC Achievers Scholarship program run by the DC College Success Foundation.  The program is open to high school students in Wards 7 and 8 and has provided approximately $10,000 in grant money for each year of college for approximately sixty students at each of six high schools for the last ten years.  With the DC TAG program also available, enabling D.C. students to essentially get the in-state tuition rate at any public university in the country, college became eminently affordable to the lucky recipients.

The Achievers program, however, is ending.  Ward 7 and Ward 8 students now face a specter of the near impossibility of funding for four-year college other than the local and much maligned University of the District of Columbia, whose struggles were the impetus for DC TAG.  As of yet, neither  OSSE nor District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) have yet to announce any measure for the Classes of 2018 and beyond.

The DC Council had floated the idea of a $70,000 scholarship program for students, but that bill stalled.  Any college scholarship program administrator will tell you it is incredibly expensive to run and maintain such a program.  Not only the scholarships need to be dispensed, but students need training for college, help with logistics, and counseling.   

RISE’s College Prep program helps students with academic preparation, college choices, logistics with financial aid paperwork and enrollment, and college visits.  But RISE cannot bridge the looming funding gap that threatens to return Ward 7 and 8 students back to a distinct disadvantage in college admissions.

As we transition into the post-Achievers era, you can be sure RISE will be dialoguing with DCPS and City Council regarding this critical situation.  Our mission is not one of political advocacy, so anyone interested in this issue is encouraged to dialogue as well.

RISE's College Prep Cohorts

RISE started the College Prep program in 2013 for the members of the class of 2014.  The original impetus for the program was our belief that our students were not making the most educated college choices.  We have provided them with mentors and with college visits to help them make informed choices, and we have also offered SAT prep, which may become less necessary now that the SAT is a more straight-forward test. 

We think the mentoring program, college visits, and SAT prep have all paid a role in helping our students become as prepared for college as possible.  We also found our students need logistical help and a little financial help with the enrollment process so that the cost of books or a room deposit do not get in the way of their success.  We even have delivered students to their campuses and have made numerous trips to get our kids home and back for school breaks.  After observing best practices of programs like POSSE and I Have a Dream, we decided to visit our students each semester during freshman and sophomore year.

When we recruited our first cohort of students, in the winter of 2013, we drew mainly from our MATHletes program.  These students tended to have some of the higher GPA’s in their class.  But we also decided to recruit one or two students each year who showed great potential even if their GPA was not high.  These students had one foot in the streets and one foot out.

Our first cohort of eleven students is now in their sophomore year.  Two of those students opted out of college soon after matriculating and began apprenticeships for plumber and electrician, respectively.  I expect each student to be very successful in those careers.  Three students lost their college funding standing after earning poor grades, so they are attending community college in an effort to get their GPA’s up.  Others have had some brief interruptions in school, but we still fully expect most students to have their degree within six years.

I cannot understate the personal, emotional, and logistical challenges many of these students have faced.  Three of our students were homeless for part of their senior year.  One student became withdrawn from half of his classes in a mistake by a college professor.  The financial aid office withdrew the student’s aid, resulting in a huge bill.  The financial aid office wouldn’t even talk to him anymore since he wasn’t a full-time student.  When he tried to talk to the registrar about his courses, they wouldn’t talk to him either because he had a large bill to pay.  The situation was never satisfactorily resolved.

RISE’s second College Prep cohort, high school graduates of the class of 2015, was probably Anacostia’s most proficient group of students in the four years RISE worked at Anacostia High School.  We are especially proud of our students who have intrepidly made unusual choices for colleges, like the University of Arizona and Stevenson College outside Baltimore.   

Our third cohort, graduating soon in June, has more modest academic accomplishments but is as perseverant as any group we have worked with.  As I mentioned in the last newsletter, violence is common in these students’ lives, and they are eager to get out of Southeast Washington.

Many of our fourth cohort of Anacostia students have higher GPA’s and SAT’s than any previous group, and they are looking at schools previous cohorts did not consider, like Guilford College and CampbellUniversity, both in North Carolina.  Both colleges have excellent demographic diversity and could very well offer substantial financial aid to any of our students with GPA’s of 3.5 or higher.

How we design the College Prep program for the class of 2018 will depend on outside funding.  We do not want to be in the position of championing college for any students for whom the financial obstacles are too numerous.